TAMPA — The highlight of Michael Clayton's 2008 season might well be his jam-packed bye week.
Tonight in Baton Rouge, La., Christian Life Academy High will retire a jersey for the first time in a ceremony honoring the Bucs receiver. The whole Clayton clan will attend, along with an individual who has similarly affected his life: his former coach at LSU, Nick Saban.
Across town Saturday, Clayton's Tigers host Saban's No. 1-ranked Alabama team in a matchup with national title implications. Clayton will perform the coin toss and watch from the sideline.
And all weekend, Clayton will celebrate the grand opening of his urban fashion store, 80 Stitches, in a Baton Rouge mall. Clayton proudly tells of how it's the largest such establishment in the area.
"It's great, man," he said. "I'm 26 years old, and it feels good."
And for the first time in years, Clayton also can apply that statement to football.
A renewed confidence in himself and, more important, his ability to regain the confidence of coach Jon Gruden, is allowing Clayton to make plays that have been conspicuously missing from his game and the Bucs offense.
There was no better example than the physical, determined run he made after a catch in overtime Sunday against Kansas City, shaking a wave of defenders on a game-changing 29-yard gain. The play took the Bucs into Chiefs territory, and Tampa Bay kicked the winning field goal six plays later.
Maybe the biggest thing wasn't that Clayton made the play. At least equally notable was the fact he had the opportunity to make it in the first place.
"It's about confidence," Clayton said. "I had to go through a lot to earn Coach Gruden's confidence in me again. I had to go through a lot to earn Jeff (Garcia's) confidence in me. It's about taking advantage of the opportunity and playing well. All that plays a part in how you feel out there on the field.
"When you get the feeling, it's like you're in a zone. You catch everything, you see more, you get more opportunities. You can really start to make stuff happen when you get the ball in your hands more. It's been a long time since I've been able to get that feeling."
Clayton's numbers aren't staggering: 24 receptions for 253 yards, both third on the roster behind Antonio Bryant and Ike Hilliard. But he is on pace for his best season since his rookie year, and considering Clayton was inactive for the season opener and only recently earned a starting spot, it could be an indication bigger things are ahead.
He made no predictions this week while reflecting on his tumultuous time in Tampa — he was seen as a star rookie in 2004 but a first-round bust in subsequent seasons. There were times it was as if he didn't exist in Gruden's eyes. His role in the offense was reduced to peripheral. He pressed while trying to make splashy plays and instead dropped routine passes.
But those around Clayton are beginning to see positive signs on the field and in the locker room.
"You can tell this is important to him," Hilliard said. "You can see it."
Well, of course. But isn't that because it's a contract year for Clayton?
"No," Hilliard says. "It's more than that. Trust me."
Quarterback Garcia said: "I especially see something this year. The hunger within him seems to be back in a way that he wants to be in a position to make a big play for this team. I think the more time he has on the field, the more opportunities that will be presented to him."
And with more time on the field, perhaps there will be more plays like Sunday's catch.
"For all the things he's been through in the last few years, for him to make a signature play in a game like (that) is huge," Gruden said.
Garcia and his receivers are politicking to make more attempts at the sort of big plays Clayton had against Kansas City. To do so, they will need Clayton to come through.
And unlike the past three seasons, that opportunity now exists for Clayton.
"I understand it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league," he said. "Then, you take into account I was banged up, I wasn't getting many balls, and I did drop a couple of balls. When you get so few chances, you can't drop any. I failed when it came to that.
"You know you're not going to catch every ball. But when you know you're going to drop one but you'll have the opportunity to redeem yourself, it's different. In the past, I wasn't able to redeem myself. It just stopped with the bad (play). Now, it's definitely a new feeling."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]